The announcement in November 1989 that the remote 6,300-acre Panthertown Valley tract in Jackson County had passed into the public domain was welcome news for knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts throughout the southeastern United States. After years of private management, this truly unique region encompassing the headwaters of the Tuckaseigee River was opened for use by the general public. Those with a penchant for exploring backcountry areas have found that Panthertown is their ticket to paradise.
After being sparsely settled in the 19th century, the extensive tract passed into private hands about the turn of the century. After World War I, property rights were acquired by a lumber company that initiated operations in the 1920s. A rail spur connecting the valley with the Southern Railway system was run from three timber camps operating along the watershed. Logging operations ceased by the late 1930s, but traces of the old rail line can still be located, especially where it crossed over rock outcrops in Panthertown Creek in the uppermost portion of the watershed. In the early 1960s, the tract was purchased by a land investment corporation associated with a South Carolina-based insurance company. Through the years a few tracts on the edge of Panthertown were sold and various development possibilities considered — including a lake that would have inundated Panthertown Valley — but little development actually occurred other than minimal road improvements and ornamental tree plantings.
In January 1988, Duke Power Co. purchased the tract from the insurance company for a 230-kilovolt transmission line it wanted to run from a generating facility at Jocassee, S.C., to its proposed subsidiary, Nantahala Power and Light Company, for connection at a substation located in the Tuckaseigee River watershed. After extensive hearings on the local and state levels, Duke Power was cleared for the Nantahala Power purchase and the right to run the transmission line across the valley. The company required but 800 or so acres for the line right-of-way and sold the remainder of the tract for $7,875,000 to the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, which in turn promptly signed the deed over to the U.S. Forest Service for approximately that amount. Panthertown Valley is curently administered by the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. Commercial timber production is unlikely as the tract is being managed under a Forest Service 4-C classification.
The most direct and scenic route to Panthertown Valley is to turn east at the crossroads in Cashiers onto U.S. 64 and proceed 1.8 miles before turning left onto Cedar Creek Road. At 2.1 miles, turn right onto Breedlove Road and proceed 3.3 miles to the gated trailhead. Study the map posted at the trailhead. Also consult the “Big Ridge” and “Lake Toxaway” U.S. Geological Survey quadrants, available at numerous outfitters in the Highlands/Cashiers area.
An excellent description of Panthertown Valley is provided by James H. Horton in a chapter titled “Physical and Natural Aspects” contributed to “The History of Jackson County” (1987). An article titled “Saving Panthertown Valley” by Vic Venters appeared in the May 1991 issue of “Wildlife in North Carolina.”
A short walk down the roadway and around the first bend leads to Salt Rock, one of the most delightful views in the southern highlands. From this overlook on the southwest rim of the Panthertown watershed a series of extensive rock outcrops that rise from 200 to 300 feet above the valley can be observed. (As power lines go, the one that Duke Power ran across the valley is not particularly obtrusive; you have to know just where to look to spot it, and even then the darkened steel towers blend in with the landscape as they are not silhouetted against the sky.) The broad valley floor and almost vertical rock-face terrain has led some to describe the area as “The Yosemite of the East.”
Western Carolina University biologist Dan Pittillo makes the point that Panthertown Valley resembles what the Yosemite Valley of California “might look like following several million years of erosion.” It’s a region of flat meandering tannin-darkened streams often bordered by white sand banks, extensive waterfall systems that form grottoes in which rare tropical ferns reside, large pools several hundred feet in length, high country bogs and seeps that harbor vegetation not often encountered elsewhere in the mountains, upland “hanging” valleys on the sides of the tract, and rocky outcrops where ravens nest.
Schoolhouse Falls on Greenland Creek is one of the most beautiful settings of its type in the southern mountains. Botanists who have surveyed Panthertown think that it contains “perhaps the largest collection of mountain bogs found south of West Virginia,” and the tract contains “at least 14 species of globally endangered plants.” Approximately three-quarters of a mile below Salt Rock overlook, you’ll come to a point where the road branches in three directions. The middle fork takes you down the left side of Panthertown Creek (the main headwater stream of the Tuckaseigee River) to a large pool, a bridge crossing, and access to Schoolhouse Falls. The right fork will lead you past a primitive camping site to a bridge. Turn right after crossing this bridge along a trail that will quickly bring you to a waterfall and pool area that’s a superb place for relaxing.
Editor’s note: This Back Then article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2001.